Travel to Huangshan - An Introduction
Huangshan（黄山）literally means yellow mountain in Mandarin. It is a scenic area that covers over 250 square kilometers (nearly 100 square miles). The mountains are characterized by their "grotesque" granite peaks and pine trees jutting out at odd angles. If you've ever seen a classical Chinese ink painting where the mountains are impossibly angular, then the painting was probably a landscape of the Yellow Mountains. According to the Chinese Tourism authorities, Huangshan is famous for four its "four wonders": the wind-carved pines, spectacular granite peaks, sea of clouds and hot springs.
Huangshan is an easy trip to be taken from Shanghai if that is your base but it can also be reached from any part of China. It is an extremely popular tourist destination for Chinese domestic tourists and in the peak season between April and October, it can be clogged with visitors. I took my trip there in March, right before the beginning of peak season (Huangshan is open year-round) and found it delightfully empty. The downside was that some of the hiking paths were closed for maintenance so we didn't get to go up to the top of Lotus Peak or walk the Carp's Backbone, but having great weather and open hiking spaces was perhaps a worthy trade-off.
In the pages that follow I'll describe our 36-hour trip. We drove from Shanghai, hiked the mountain, stayed overnight on top, got up for sunrise, took the cable car down and then visited a few of the villages nearby before heading back to Shanghai. It was a quick trip but also very enjoyable.
Packing for an Overnight Trip to Huangshan
As always, packing the right gear, especially for trekking, is important. If you know you're going to be doing this trip and you're coming to China from abroad, then you might want to save yourself trouble and bring it all with you. However, you can also easily buy trekking gear in China (though large shoe sizes will be difficult to find).
As we would be hiking up the mountain and staying overnight, I wanted to be sure that I didn't take too much with me since I'd have to hike with it. However, the mountain is known to get cold (the peak area is about 1800m or around 6,000 feet) and I knew we'd be getting up before sunlight to see the sunrise so I'd need warm clothing. So I put some considerable time into packing to not only pare it down but to make sure I had everything I needed.
I came up with the perfect packing list. I used everything I took and it was light enough that I didn't have back trouble the next day!
Driving - Shanghai to Huangshan
There were thirteen of us who went on the trip so we organized a mini-bus and driver to take us to Huangshan and drop us off. We set a specific time and place for meeting and arranged for the driver to pick us up the following day to continue the tour and drive back to Shanghai.
The drive took about six hours and we left from downtown Shanghai at 6:00 a.m. For a few hours the drive is nondescript but once you get into Anhui Province, you begin to see more villages and in March, the rapeseed were blooming so the fields were golden on either side of the road. It was really spectacular and I'm regretting now that I didn't insist we stop along the roadside for some photos.
Arriving at the South Gate of Huangshan
We arrived at the South Gate of Huangshan at about noon. One doesn't just hop out of the car and on to the trailhead and head up, unfortunately. There's quite a bit of orienting and ticket purchasing before you can actually begin hiking.
If you start at the South (Front) Gate, which most people do, your car or bus won't be allowed beyond a certain point. At the drop-off area you get out, stretch, gather yourself and try to figure out what's next. What is next is that you must take another bus to the trailhead. If you don't know this already before you arrive, you might have trouble figuring it out. (Now you know.) Things are not clearly marked. We first wandered into the supply shop (where there were also toilets), and while we didn't find the bus tickets, we were able to pick up some English maps of the mountain, cheap rain ponchos and other gear (water, snacks). It's definitely worth picking up a map as while the trails are marked in both English and Mandarin (and Korean and Japanese), sometimes it is confusing and we often consulted our maps.
While a few of us shopped, another few figured out where to buy the bus tickets and so we all finally headed off to the bus terminal that takes you to the various trailheads. I emphasize various because if you do not pay attention, like us, then you might not end up at the right place. There are two ways up from the South Gate: the Eastern Steps that follow the Yungu (云谷)cable car and take about 2-3 hours to hike and the Western Steps that follow the Yuping (玉屏) cable car and take 6-7 hours to hike. We did not pay attention to the bus we got on and went to the Western Steps, thinking they were the Eastern Steps.
The moral of this little vignette is this: buy a map, study it, follow it and ask questions when you're confused. We were the blind leading the blind and while we made it to the top, we did not intend on hiking for so long.
Hiking Up the Western Steps
The trailhead of the Western Steps has many ways to be identified and I will give them all to you here so you can unequivocally know where you are should you find yourself here accidentally:
- the Jade Screen Cableway
- 玉屏索道 (written in Mandarin thus)
- Pronounced "yoo ping suo dao"
- The bus station is called the Mercy Light Temple Station
- 慈兴阁站 (in Mandarin)
- Pronounced "tse shing geh jahn"
Now you know more than we did when we began the hike. That said, we were 13 of us in very good spirits. Two immediately went up the cable car to get to the top quickly so as to spend as much time as possible on the summit. The rest of us 11 began the hike up the steps. But four turned back after about an hour and took the cable car up. The seven of us continued on and eventually split into two groups: one slower, one faster.
There are many stops and markers along the way so we did eventually figure out that we were hiking the Western Steps. And while we kept a very fast pace, the views were incredible and the hike was really amazing. The path is literally all steps. Some work crew did an incredible job at some point because it is currently very smoothly paved step after step. There are very few flat parts and some parts are very steep and difficult.
We eventually met up with our group at a place called Brightness Top on the summit where the ones who had used the cable car had gathered to watch sunset. The hike took us approximately five hours but it was invigorating. From Brightness Top we had another hour to walk to our hotel, the Xihai Hotel on the summit. We reached the hotel just as it was getting dark.
Staying Overnight at the Top of Huangshan
Having a clean room and hot showers brightened everyone's spirits. Especially because a few in our group had stayed on the summit before in dismal accommodation, we were not expecting much. Happily, the Xihai Hotel has a new wing that we booked into and it was really very comfortable.
After dumping bags and showering, we met up in the hotel's Chinese cuisine restaurant where we ordered almost everything on the menu and enjoyed every bite. The food was very fresh and I guess it comes from farms at the foot of the mountain so it was simple and delicious.
After dinner, many of us explored the hotel's entertainment options from foot massage to karaoke but we all turned in relatively early in order to get up for sunrise the next morning.
Photographing Sunrise on Huangshan
The sunrise enthusiasts set the time to meet in the lobby at 5:30 a.m. and the plan was that if you weren't there, then they weren't waiting. I was not totally convinced the night before that I wanted to get up but I happened to wake up before my alarm went off so I threw on some clothes and grabbed my camera and headed down. I was a few minutes late but after hollering in the dark, managed to catch up with the group. Another few stragglers came along and so our group ended up splitting in two, with my half following Chinese tourists who looked like they knew what they were doing. (When in doubt at sunrise, follow the people with the big cameras.)
There are multiple places to catch sunrise and the place we ended up is called "Monkey Watching the Sea", a high point that gives you a view over the northern valleys as well as the western Sea of Clouds.
The space was already quite crowded but we managed to squeeze in and I balanced my camera on the railing underneath someone else's large tripod. The sunrise was beautiful. The weather had been clear so we didn't get the mist hanging over the tops of the mountains that some people get when they go to Huangshan. It was fun to be up there so early with all those people and I did get a few decent shots, though my photographer friends did much better.
After about 45 minutes, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and to pack up to head down and meet our bus.
Heading Down with the Taiping Cabelcar
While our itinerary didn't require us to use the north side of the mountain to exit, we had heard that the Taiping Cablear ride was spectacular so we decided to leave this way. The walk from the hotel to the Taiping station was only about thirty minutes and we had plenty of time to take more photos on the way.
The cable car ride didn't disappoint but I would recommend those who are afraid of heights not stand near the window. The supports for the ropeway seem impossibly high and the mountain valleys impossibly low. There is one point where you can't see the next support and all you see in the distance are ropeways that seem to suspend the cable car into infinity.
The ride only took about ten minutes leaving me wishing I could have walked the way down the mountain. Unfortunately time didn't permit and it was time for us to pile back into our waiting van to continue on to see typical Huizhou architecture in Hongcun and Xidi, two UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites in Anhui Province.
Visiting the UNESCO Villages at the Foot of Huangshan
By the time our van rolled up to Hongcun the skies had opened up and it was pouring rain. Our van was met with a shoving group of old ladies trying to see us umbrellas and rain ponchos. Those who still had them, donned their Huangshan-purchased rain gear and we went off exploring.
The villages were fairly empty probably due to a combination of the weather, the fact we were visiting on a weekday and the fact that it wasn't yet high season. We were lucky in this. The villages we visited are very small with tiny, narrow alleyways. I wouldn't want to be crowding around in this with throngs of tourists.
Probably the highlight of our village visits was a comical arrival at The Pig's Inn, a tiny inn and restaurant that at first told us we couldn't visit when we called them on the way, but then proceeded to make us a very delicious homemade meal.
Thoughts on Our 36-Hour Itinerary
We were in a rush to get back to Shanghai so probably didn't spend enough time really wandering through the villages and seeing everything we could. I think 36-hours might be a little too tight to fit all of this in. After two early mornings and one late night, we were all pretty tired by the second afternoon and with poor weather, eager to get back. That eagerness turned into frustration and anger and then resignation as our driver got very lost in the back-country of Anhui Province. Lost and congenial, he stopped every driver or farmer for what seemed like a hundred kilometers until finally we got a police escort back to the main road!
Our eagerness quickly turned into frustration over the hours we spent bouncing along the hilly roads between villages as our driver searched for the right road. Luckily, this kind of thing doesn't happen too often when I travel but these kinds of things do occur and it's best not to dwell on it. We ended up arriving back into Shanghai at about midnight through a terrific lightening and rainstorm, so really, we were just happy to be back safely.
Thoughts on this itinerary for you:
One night and two days just wasn't quite enough. To do it again, I would spend two nights. One way is to arrive and sleep a the foot of the mountain, spend one whole day on the mountain going up and down, and then spending another relaxing night somewhere near the villages. Then get up on Day 3 and enjoy the villages with plenty of time to get back to Shanghai or wherever is next.
Another way to do it would be do the same as us, then take your time going down the mountain. Spend the second night at the foot, and then Day 3 exploring the area and villages.The bottom line is that more time is always better. But I enjoyed this trip very much and would really like to go back again some day.